Compassion and the Social Implications of a Growth Mindset

One of the “in” concepts in education today is “growth mindset.” Carol Dweck, a researcher and the author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, first introduced the term to many people. A growth mindset is opposite a fixed or stagnant one, one that says your intelligence or ability to learn or emotional nature is set and irreversible. Instead, a growth mindset says effort pays off. You can change; you can improve your intellectual abilities. It pays off not only in education but also business, relationships, sports. I agree with this perspective. And it’s not new.

 

When I studied psychology in the 1960s, I was told that brain cells do not regenerate and by the time you’re a young adult, the brain is set. Since then, neuroscience has shown that new brain cells can be produced (neurogenesis) and that new pathways in the brain are constantly being formed (neuroplasticity). Most teachers I know have been applying some version of this mindset since they began teaching. In fact, how could anyone be a good teacher without such a mindset? Maybe I’m being simplistic, but without believing in the possibility of intellectual growth, how can you believe in learning? Learning is change. Good teachers know that their attitude and assumptions about how well a student can learn will influence how well they do learn from you. Developing such an attitude in students is crucial to learning.

 

Dweck cites research to show that a growth mindset not only leads to an increase in learning, but an increase in compassion and a decrease in aggressive behavior and depression. Why is that?

 

To have a fixed mindset is not very different than believing in a fixed ego. According to Mathieu Ricard, such a view of ego has three characteristics. Firstly, you imagine you perceive the world as it is and that your perception is the only correct perception. Those who oppose you are just wrong. Secondly, you project onto the world attributes that aren’t there, attributes like goodness, beauty, ugliness, and these attributes are fixed, constant, unchanging and distinct, separable from the socio-historical context that supplied the label, which gets us to the third characteristic. You try to deny that you and others can change in meaningful ways. It is all genetics, out of your control. Your heroes are exceptional, superhuman. Successful people are born that way. God or nature favored them. Dweck described the fixed mindset as saying, “effort is for those with deficiencies.” (42) Thirdly, you think of everything you see as standing on its own, separate instead of as part of an interconnecting network. But life means change. Breathing is change. Learning is change. And there is no isolating of anything in the universe from the universe. A fixed mindset requires constant vigilance to ignore much of life and what is happening around you and to perceive instead your idea of what is or should be there. It requires ignoring empathy and compassion both for what others might actually be feeling, as well as for your own thoughts and emotions.

 

Depression can share these characteristics with a fixed mindset. Depression is not just depressed feeling; it is a depressed ability to take in, be open to, new information, experiences and viewpoints. You don’t recognize a difference between sadness, or feeling down as a natural response to events in the world, something everyone sometimes feels, and identifying yourself as a depressed person. You cut yourself off, feel stuck and unable to change. You can mentally lock yourself in a box built out of your own ideas about yourself and the world. Instead of being present and open, you are absent from the life that exists beyond the limited boundary of your box.

 

One way to end depression is to practice compassion. Compassion is empathy with extra benefits. You step out of your box and look around you. You treat yourself and others with more kindness and patience. Compassion can include the cognitive ability to discern what another feels as well as emotional resonance, empathetic caring and openness to what another person feels. Then there’s a readiness to act to reduce the suffering of another being almost as if the suffering was your own. You recognize you are two different beings but what you share is at least as important as how you are different. Compassion is the ultimate growth mindset in that you know and feel the other person can change and you commit yourself to work to help spur that change.

 

Compassion also means you realize that how you treat others is how you treat yourself. By being open to another person, your state of mind and heart become openness, caring, kindness. When you close yourself to another, you are closed off.  Whether you act on it or not, when you carry anger, the world comes back to you as angry. You suffer your anger. When you carry hate, you depersonalize others and turn them into merely ideas. Carrying hate can rob you of power and control by depriving you of perspective. You feel a world dominated by hatred. When you are compassionate and kind, the world feels compassionate; you, as well as those around you, get the benefits. Thus, one way to free yourself from a fixed mindset or depression, and expand your ability to think clearly and critically, is to practice empathy and compassion.

 

A fixed mindset is a distorted way of looking at other people and the world. Such a viewpoint can have disastrous social and political consequences. A growth mindset, on the other hand, has tremendous social as well as educational benefits. It realizes you cannot isolate yourself from the welfare of others or imagine those who are successful are somehow more deserving, by nature, than anyone else. Success is due to your care and effort as well as the cultural environment and how social/political institutions are structured. These institutions can change. A growth mindset can spur individual people, and those collections of people in large groups called governments, to work for the welfare of all.

 

“True compassion, is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Summertime

Do we all grow up with a longing for summer? Even if we have no connection, as adults, to the school system, summer can remind us of childhood, the celebration of the end of the school year, warm weather, and vacations. And if we’re teachers and don’t have summer school or don’t have to work a second job, we can have free time once again.

 

Summer is a time of renewal. What does that mean? This morning, I woke up early and went outside. Two crows were screaming as they flew past. Our home is in a small clearing surrounded by trees, flowering bushes and flowers. The shade from the trees was vibrant, cool and fresh, the colors sharp and clear. The light so alive it wrapped the moment in a mysterious intensity. Time slowed so deeply that once the crows quieted, the songs of the other birds and the sounds of the breeze just added to the silence.

 

This is what I look forward to. Even now that I’m retired, I so enjoy summer. It doesn’t matter to me if it gets too hot and humid or if it rains. This is it.

 

When I was teaching, summer was a time to fill up with life outside my classroom. I also took classes every summer, in whatever interested me. I just wanted to feel like a kid again, and a student, open, fresh, playful. I wanted to take in what I could and let go of the rest. We all need this. So that even in winter, we know moments of freshness and quiet exist. Not just as memories but reminders. Renewal can happen at any time. We can let go. Time can dissolve into silence.

 

We can notice and accept change. Summer is, after all, just a label. A season is a rhythm of nature. Rhythm is the pulse of change. So, feel that pulse and all the different rhythms of your life. There are biological rhythms. There is the circadian (around the day) rhythm, the 24 hour sleep-awake cycle controlling core body temperature, pulse, blood sugar, motor control and such. There is the ultradian (within or beyond the day) rhythm, a 90-120 minute cycle controlling things like dream cycles and which hemisphere of the brain is dominant. What other biological rhythms do we have? Menstrual (infradian rhythm). Our blood has tides. Even cells oscillate. And all around us, cycles of the moon and sun, cycles of trees and animals. Cycles within cycles.

 

Why all these cycles? Maybe they fit us together. Not just us, people to people, but everyone to everything. Our internal rhythms can, if we pay attention, link us to external ones like time of day (sunlight), time of month (moon cycle). The more in tune we are with nature, the more in sync with ourselves. So this is another part of renewal, to feel this pulse, rhythm, and move with it.

 

One example of not being in tune with nature is the starting time of many secondary schools. High school students in this country are seriously sleep deprived. Their natural rhythm is to stay up later and wake up later than adults. Several studies show that starting schools at 9 a. m. instead of 7 or 8 a. m. would improve student alertness and performance and decrease absences and depression. My old school, the Lehman Alternative Community School, tried this and it worked well.

 

The metaphor of a dance is fitting. As T. S. Eliot put it—“…at the still point, there the dance is …/Except for the point, the still point,/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” So, let’s allow ourselves to enjoy summer and dance with the rhythm nature has given us.

Endings

What are helpful ways to bring the school year, or anything, to an end? How do you pull everything together so the year concludes on a high note and you don’t try to cram in too much and stress yourself and everyone else? One complaint I hear from students (about other classes, of course, not my own) is that by the second week of May they suddenly have too much to do and they claim no one prepared them for this.

 

And teachers, when preparing students for the standardized tests at the end of the year, can wonder if they did enough. They can be angry at the state for imposing new requirements; angry at the principal, a student or themselves when they feel they didn’t teach well or an issue remained unresolved. Stress arises whenever something lingers and you feel you can’t control or handle it.

 

While it might seem difficult, a teacher should begin the year by planning the end. Ask yourself, what do you want students to be able to do at the end of the year? What skills, knowledge, deep understandings do you think they should have? What standards must they meet? This is the backwards design process. Once you know where you’re going, you can develop a process for getting there—and let students know the plan. I encourage you to take a further step and have students help in the course design. Find out, once you have answered the above questions for yourself, what students want to know and think they need to know. By incorporating students into the course design, they will be better prepared. And engaged. Maybe part of the crisis mentality at the end of the year comes from students having distanced themselves from the class at the beginning.

 

In a good year, the end energizes me. I wake up to the fact that I have so little time left with the students. I want to give them whatever I can. Even if I am tired of all the effort teaching takes, I don’t mind so much. I pay closer attention. I feel the value of each moment. During the year, I sometimes resist the work; now I can’t.

 

Not being prepared for the ending can occur not only in school, but anywhere–when a relationship breaks up, or there’s a death, or you’re preparing for an event. It can seem a total surprise. It can feel like something was going on of which you were totally unaware. You feel that you weren’t paying attention. So one strategy is to pay attention, moment by moment. You don’t want to mourn for your own life.

 

Why don’t we pay attention? There are all sorts of reasons. Certainly, frequent use of multitasking with social and other media doesn’t help. Another reason might be that we never learned how to do it well. Attention training is not usually part of education. ‘Attention’ comes from the root ‘attendere’ which literally means to reach or stretch towards and can also mean mental focus, interest, and caring. Attention is not automatic; it requires energy. It is an active reaching out. We show we care with our attention. Students might not pay attention because they don’t care or they consciously or unconsciously resist the experience. And then, at the end, they might realize what they have lost and they panic. Or they get so used to panic and stress that they think they need it to get anything done.

 

So, it’s helpful to teach students about attention. Mindfulness can do this. With mindful focus, there is more clarity about what needs to be done and less stress about the year ending.

 

Also, people might stop paying attention to the end because it reminds them of the very fluid nature of the world. Change can be upsetting. Change means endings but is so much more than that. Taking a breath means change. Talking means moving lips, breath, thought. To know and learn is change. Fear arises when you cling to an end as if it continues and does not change. But even endings end. Change is just another way to say living, feeling, understanding. So, trust in the ability to know and feel the living world.

 

Take a moment. Let your eyes close, your body relax and your mind turn inwards. Have you ever just sat by a stream and watched the water pass by? Picture that stream, the water, the scene around it. Maybe there were trees nearby. Maybe there were rocks in the streambed around which the water streamed. Eddies were formed by these rocks. Some were small, some very large. Yet, the water continued on, adjusting. Maybe you could see the sunlight reflecting off the water, sparkling, like a jewel. Maybe you could feel a sense of comfort in looking at the stream as a whole and the scene around it. Just feel it. Isn’t there a sense of beauty in the whole? Notice that you can focus either on the constantly changing water, or the whole– the trees, the rocks, the streambed, the sky. The two perceptions, of the flowing water and the whole, support each other and you could go from one to the other fluidly. Now, just take in the scene and rest in it. If any thought comes, or feeling, let it be carried away in the stream and then return your mind to noticing the whole scene.

 

So, ending the year isn’t the problem. It is how we think about it. We all draw conclusions, about others, about the state of the world and, of course, about how our day, month, moment, or year went. We need to realize the nature of thought. Why do we have thoughts? What are they? When we think about how the year went, are we trying not only  to sum up a year but create an image of who we are? “The year went well; I am a good teacher. The year sucked. Do I suck?” We try to create a secure image of the past that can be projected into a secured future. But is any thought or abstraction of an event as encompassing as the event itself? Can we enjoy our memories without distorting them with judgments? Can we teach the importance of critical thinking and intellectual understanding, yet recognize that the world always exceeds our ideas about it? We need to hold our ideas more lightly and the world more intimately.

 

The value of reflection at the end is not only about what lessons have been learned, but about coming back to now. It is to view being in a classroom from a larger perspective. You are a human being living a life of which this school is just a part. The purpose of an ending is to bring you back to where you began: vulnerable, not knowing what will happen, but open to what occurs. In a class, that means that at the end of the year, reflect not only on what has been learned in school, but what being in this situation feels like right now. What do you feel about this new, unknown, ending, or beginning, and about going on with your life without the structure of this class? Always return to the reality of being a human being, in relation with others, now.